The Value of Peer Support

With passion and conviction, Fiona Wilson delivered the latest Ground Rounds presentation on the role of the peer support worker in a hospital setting.  Sharing her experiences on the factors for success in such a program, Wilson suggested that peer support workers should be considered a recognized professional practice group.  This would allow for greater role recognition from the workers’ peers as well as formal involvement in planning, programming and policy design.

“Peer support should be valued and recognized as complimentary care to the clinical care for the treatment of mental illness,” says Wilson, who shares that the peer support role helps the individual on their journey of recovery.

Peer support provides an opportunity to assist individual recovery goal settings and activities; helps problem solve with treatment teams if necessary; and helps navigate the system with individuals and their families.

“It is the individual personal goals of those living with a mental illness that drive peer support work. Their work is complimentary and they should be considered a part of the allied health team,” emphasizes Wilson.

Peer support helps bring about changes in beliefs about mental illness because they themselves have been “personally effective in busting apart old stereotypes” and end up being positive role models.

To strengthen the effectiveness of the peer support role, Wilson suggested that the workers must be knowledgeable about how mental health services operate, and there needs to be clearly define roles and responsibilities to support training.

“Having lived experience with mental illness is not the only criteria to be effective in the peer support role; you must have had effective training in this field. The supervisor and mentors should also have some management skills in addition to their lived experience.”

There is also need to ensure that there is some work done to prepare the community and the organization to support the role of the peer support worker for there to be a successful peer support program.  It is for this reason that clear practice guidelines and role descriptions are developed and communicated.

“Peer support doesn't duplicate the work already being done by others.  It is a true collaboration on a plan of care towards recovery, “adds Wilson.

She also adds that there's need for greater equity and value for peer support workers who are often paid less than their non-peer colleagues.

“As peer support workers, we often face stigma from our colleagues in the hospital setting. They might think that the peer support worker is not trained to work in a clinical setting and that it is a risk to the individual offering it, who may get ill, “says Wilson.

Overall, Wilson suggests that the greatest lessons learned when offering a peer support program comes through listening to feedback from peer staff, community and clinical colleagues.

In addition, while the anecdotal support is there with lots of families sharing how much peer support has helped in recovery, Wilson says that more research is needed to fully evaluate the role of peer support in making a difference to someone with a mental illness and why.

“There are opportunities to better utilize peer support work in recovery and we should continue to explore this,” says Wilson.